Ridin’ the Dunes Through 2020

Burnout is the word I have been searching for with everydraft of this introduction I have attempted to pour myself into, a word which has come to symbolise my 2020. Though I consider myself incredibly lucky to have (so far) dodged Covid’s sadistic turbulence, its social effects on my “everyday” became a little too much. Too much in fact that every time I went to sit down to review either album or film, within a a short period of time I was, quite frankly, spent. Add to that the strain put upon the retail sector by the virulent irrationality of the public throughout these lockdowns, the whole situation left me strained. The lesson from all this? Pandemics fucking suck, man

But, for all the misery inflicted by this asshole of a virus, the one thing it hasn’t completely stolen from us is the sheer volume of quality music gliding the airwaves and brushing the sky with nothing less than colourful hues. I miss gigs as much as you, and though the live industry has been decimated by our common enemy the power of the riff WILL prevail, as proven by the slew of releases coming out from every imaginable crevice around the world. This community we call our own has never been stronger, its fabric remaining firm in the face of all adversity, and though my part as of late has been beyond miniscule in all this I have seldom felt a sense of belonging quite like I do in our extended family (sans marriage of course). We will overcome this and when we do the parties burning through the night will be huge.

Special Mentions

Until then, 2020 has resulted in a plethora of records and moments never to be forgotten. The biggest of these moments has surely been the birth of Bandcamp Friday: the first Friday of the calendar month where Bandcamp waives their fees on all purchases entitling artists and labels to 100% of their profits. It is a year-defining gesture for a corner of the industry where the majority of money made is on the road; a reminder of how far such acts of generosity can really go. Spotify and other such platforms have a lot to learn from this.

As far as music goes one label stands utterly triumphant as the beacon for all overs to follow: with a track record as impressive as theirs in 2020, Ripple Music have more than proven themselves to be the stalwarts of our fuzzed-out universe. With every single record blossoming from their ever-expanding branches a fantastical masterpiece, Ripple have pushed the boundaries of where heaviness can reach, projecting a myriad of bands itching for the audience they deserve into the stratosphere. And with the recent news of Wolftooth joining the ranks of Napalm Records, a journey head honcho Todd Severin has played a huge part in (although Wolftooth’s music rightly speaks for itself), the possibilities for everyone under his loving wings now seems endless.

The List: An Overview

Coming up with an AOTY list this year has been an absolute nightmare. Having to trawl through hundreds of records and whittling the selection down to the prefereed list quota, though beyond pleasurable in every sense, has given me a headache I can barely comprehend. Spreadsheet after spreadsheet, listening session after listening session, and the near reckless abuse of my colleagues’ patience in hounding their eardrums with everything the year has served up has left me no closer to a definitive list than when I started to configure it last month. Though my top 10 has largely remained unchanged the flow of records entering and leaving the list has been as constant as the raging river. What exactly do I want a year-end list to be? Something reflective of 2020’s overall frame of mind? An embodiment of the power music possesses in keeping our spirits alive? A compendium of resplendance occupying permanent residency within my fucked-up brainwaves? The bottom line when you’re as difficult as I can be is to just bite the goddamn bullet and make with your gut once in a while.   

The List: Runners Up

After much serious contemplation, deliberation, and the odd beer or two, a list has been concocted, maimed and reconstructed, obliterated and rebuilt from the ground up. Frankenstein’s list if you will. For many it will be far from perfect, and of course not everr album I wanted to include could be, and the idea of compiling a more comprehensive runners-up list has floated through my mindbrain, but for now you’ll have to make do with a list of 10 albums slowly nudged out of the final cut. Think of it as the solitary extra on the one-disc edition of your favourite DVD release.

Honeybadger – Pleasure Delayer (Made of Stone Recordings)

HÄGHÄG (Self-Released)

Buffalo Fuzz – Volume II (Self-Released)

Subterraen – Rotten Human Kingdom (Transcending Obscurity Records)

Enslaved – Utgard (Nuclear Blast)

King Buffalo – Dead Star (Stickman Records)

Spell – Opulent Decay (Bad Omen Records)

Svalbard – When I Die, Will I Get Better? (Church Road Records)

Brant Bjork – Brant Bjork (Heavy Psych Sounds)

Sólstafir – Endless Twilight of Codependent Love (Season of Mist)

From here on out you will find Bandcamp links underneath the wicked album art!

30: Palehorse \ Palerider / Lord Buffalo – Legends of the Desert Vol. 1 (Desert Records)

These hands are cursed to kill

Stepping up to the mantle and challenging our preconceived notions of The West, the frontier, the untameable, Palehorse / Palerider and Lord Buffalo kick off our annual celebrations with their deeply meditative visions of a land reimagined. PH / PR’s droning Americana swirls under the blood red dawn with cinematic awe and breathtaking realism: close your eyes during the centrepiece ‘Badlands’ and its mesmerising follow-up and you can feel the mesa between your toes, the wind through your hair, the changing tides of a land didvided. Meanwhile Lord Buffalo’s ATW-esque tribal ritualism reflects on and projects a deeper, more organic connection to the lands we have spend aeons selfishly rupturing and pillaging; their dirges shroud you in long-forgotten hazes and memories with an erupting, solemn quietude; their voices sing with vibrancy in a harmonious dalliance with the lands they call home. Brad Frye, with Desert Records, has set out with an impressive vision – to reinvent our understanding of the desert – and if this first volume is anything to go by then he will have conquered our minds with everlasting triumph!

29: Old Blood – Acid Doom (Metal Assault)

That scarlet queen, your gasoline – Take your blues away

Gather round ladies and gentlemen for the rock’n’roll circus is about to begin! Allow the booze to flow and your inhibitions to spiral out of control as your bedazzling hosts for the evening unleash a wickedness so tempting no amount of self-control can keep you sin-free. And just when your vulgarities rise to the surface in the grip of euphoric freedom feel the blade slice across your throat with one sensuous strike, for blood is the price you pay for one night of Acid Doom intoxication! Intoxication is indeed the only way to describe Old Blood’s miraculous return, a fervant cocktail of blues, jazz, lounge doom, and rock’s sexual swagger best served neat and chilled. It’s a record to set your soul on fire, as the likes of ‘Veinscraper’, ‘Slothgod’, and ‘429’ fuel your inebriation into overdrive, with ‘Orbit’ and ‘Heavy Water’ the sultry spark immolating your mind, body and spirit. With Lynx as their captivating new priestess, Old Blood are poised to turn every nightclub and divebar into dens of delerium and depravity.

28: Eternal Champion – Ravening Iron (No Remorse Records)

For my price I’ll roam my wretched world ’til the end of all time

From the liqour-laced halls Old Blood lay trap for mortal souls to the realms where Eternal Champion set them free for the powers of good, we reach #28 to raise our swords high and shout our rallying cry from the pits of our stomach. EC’s rousing chain-rattling heavy metal captures our imaginations in ways only the old ones could, clasping upon the summit of which perches Manilla Road, Cirith Ungol, and Brocas Helm with their 2016 debut; arguably the most anticipated release in the iron-clad world, Ravening Iron delivered in every front, surging forward in sweeping rushes, anthemic battle hymns, and fantastical tales of glory and the banishment of evil. Longing are we to lift the Godblade and charge forward to the pounding rhythms of ‘A Face in the Glare’, ‘Coward’s Keep’ and ‘Banners of Arhai’ to emerge victorious, covered in the blood of those who align themselves with the enemy. With every re-listen I raise my chalice to you Eternal Champion for igniting these powers within us all!

27: Stone Age Mammoth – Guardians of the Night (Self-Released)

I believe in a long, prolonged, derangement of the senses in order to obtain the unknown – Jim Morrison

Fuelling solo navigations into the depths of the night sky when the turmoil has been too great, Stone Age Mammoth have been a staple of 2020 for yours truly, seldom leaving album rotations since April’s Open Road EP. With Panagiotis Zabourlis’ inimitably iconic scorching leads illuminating the wilderness of the desert, Guardians of the Night is a wall-to-wall powerhouse of hypnotic jamming and psychedelic groove straddling the fine line between timeless perfection and life-affirming soulfood. The second those licks blast off into the dead of night it is nothing but wave upon wave of euphoric comfort, enveloping you in a technicolour embrace reminding you of all the good there is in this world, transporting you to the places you need to be, to see, to feel. The motifs fleshing out the frames of ‘A Shadow in the Desert’, ‘After the Storm’ and ‘Foxie’ are so effortless in their execution you have to wonder how much of this Zabourlis crafts in dream-induced states of being! Pure exploratory music for the quests we shall no doubt be taking once this Covid-malarkey is in the rear-view, lying naked on the two-lane blacktop, reduced to cinders by the desert sun and Stone Age Mammoth’s incendiary majesty.

26: Arcadian Child – Protopsycho (Rebel Wave Records / Ripple Music)

Cut me now, oh cut me please, taste my blood and taste my sin

Do not blame me if Protopsycho arouses something inhuman within you! The primal energy erupting from every pore, every orifice of the Cypriot’s latest tome threatens to awaken something deeply repressed at every twist and turn it takes (and believe me there are plenty), tapping into the uncivilised recesses of the human experience with effortless ease. This isn’t to say Arcadian Child are a corruptive force on the morals and sensibilities of the modern world: if anything their music is freeing from the restrictions governed upon us as an intense dose of arcane knowledge and celestial mysticism long forgotten to us. Gone are the limitations of the flesh, gone is the suffocating infrastructure obscuring our connections to ourselves; broken down and molten, we are free to give in to subconscious desire and mould ourselves as one divine entity. So yes, give in to the mystical power of ‘Bitter Tea’, ‘Sour Grapes’, and the otherworldly incandescence of ‘Snakecharm’, and rise above the idle sky!

25: Emma Ruth Rundle & Thou – May Our Chambers Be Full (Sacred Bones Records)

All alone… All alive… Undefined…

And so by the clutches of despair all breath shall cease to whimper; life doth drown under the calamitous weight of everlasting suffering. Escaping the multidimensional darkness birthed from Emma Ruth Rundle and Thou’s fateful marriage is a fruitless endeavour: an all-encompassing rage entwined with blissful solitude floods through every crevice; waters of a captivating darkness pull you further down, swirling with the lashing currents as your final moments are serenaded with the gloomy lullabies present on this offering. This dreamlike juxtaposition between a bittersweet heaven and a lulling hell is as numbing as any opiate and as otherworldly as an Adam Burke painting; there’s a beguiling beauty in the weeping, open wounds of vulnerability just as there is in the luscious stasis of ‘Killing Floor’, the hypnotic menace of ‘Ancestral Recall’, and the overwhelming swells of ‘Magickal Cost’. Each offering sinks their hooks into your vessel and strip back the walls until exposure into the void is all their will be. This is what bleak perfection feels like.

24: Hydra – From Light to the Abyss (Piranha Music

No one loves like Satan

In Pleszew the devil wines and dines in superb company! Wiser beyond their years with more terror in their eyes than a Hammer Horror double-bill, Hydra summon forth a sinister entourage of Sabbathian ghouls like the necromancers of old. What feels like an eternity of festering and simmering in the depths of the earth, From Light to the Abyss comes just a year into the band’s existence – a testament to the forces the quartet are capable of conjuring, bested only by the tremendous chemistry flowing through every monumental motif. These five odes of crypt-born doom – soon to be the stuff of legend – smoulder with an arcane energy; billowing smoke from behind the mausoleum doors seeps into the living realm, scored by the otherworldy laments of the long dead, and emerges to take complete control of your inihibitions. Once possessed, you’ll be dragged back to bang your heads among the spectres down below – it’s one hell of a party!

23: Bonehawk – Iron Mountain (Cursed Tongue Records)

This is a story for the ages

Overlooking the world as it falls into disrepair atop the godly summit, Kalamazoo’s saviours of rock’n’roll Bonehawk reached high above the human experience, peered into greatness, and translated this into a message we could all understand. With a stonking array of future hits, Iron Mountain feels like a divine gift blessed upon us from a higher dimension: from the very start it steals your attention, leaving you awestruck at its sudden crack of thunder until its dying rumbles towards the end of ‘Lake of the Clouds’. This is their storm, their moment of triumph, and their power over the mortal dominion is as enthralling as the greats of yore. Each riff, every spiritually-uplifting anthem from ‘Summit Fever’ to ‘Strange Magic’, from ‘Fire Lake’ to ‘Thunder Child’ has been woven into the winds, fanning the flames of purification across the land; soon we shall start anew, and I’ll be damned if Iron Mountain isn’t the soundtrack to our own journey towards the crest of nirvana.

22: Spirit Adrift – Enlightened In Eternity (20 Buck Spin / Century Media Records)

There is nowhere that can’t be seen if you let yourself be free

As long as we’re gushing praise to spiritually-uplifting anthems your go-to feelgood record of the year belongs to this glorious slab o’ heavy metal. With a lineup stripped down to himself and Marcus Bryant on drums, Nate Garrett surged down from the heavens on wings of silver, those layers of doom all but melted away by the sun, and cleaved into the maniacal stranglehold this year had on us. Shimmering with a distinctly ’80s coat of arms yet emblazened with his endless journey of self-discovery, Garrett’s sound is not dictated by genre restrictions but by time passed and wisdom gained – and he completely owns it! Songs like ‘Riding into the Light’, ‘Astral Levitation’, ‘Screaming from Beyond’, and the neverending positivity of ‘Stronger Than Your Pain’ are a fucking joy to belt out from the pits of our stomachs; not only do you hear the same from Garrett but you feel it in every word he cries out. This is the record 2020 needed and boy does it continue to deliver!

21: Hail the Void – Hail the Void (Void Records)

I am so afraid this is the end

The sheer quantity of sounds vying for mass ejection from the void are immeasurable, many of which have mulled and stewed for what would seem like centuries. Originally birthed in the outer regions of Canada, Hail the Void’s self-titled record is one such monolith, as mysterious and as alluring as those structures seen arriving and exiting across the planet this year; with the density of a collapsing star shrouded by nothing but black, Hail The Void swallows all visible light with one almighty gulp, expelling harrowing visions of celestial desertification on the out-breath. The frightening death of the universe aside, these unearthly textures the trio project enshroud and suffocate, an enrichment of smotheringly-heavy low end and smouldering guitars propelled by Kirin Gudmunson’s post-punk-infused vocals towards the event horizon. When such a devastatingly heavy monument to the colossal dark manages to glide along astral streams towards the precipice of oblivion with such elegance, then you should take heed, shut your eyes, and prepare for the end.

20: Yuri Gagarin – The Outskirts of Reality (Self-Released)

I looked and I looked but I did not see God – Yuri Gagarin

Hairs standing on end, goosebumps racing for prominence across your body, and the unquestional cosmic explosion firing off every cylinder in your brain as the kaliedoscopic rush breaks every known and unknown barrier separating the visible and invisible planes. Those first seven minutes of The Outskirts of Reality opener ‘QSO’ are among the most blistering psychedelic experiences ever committed to tape, an endless gamma burst hurtling through space at inconceivable speeds, twisting the very fabric of the universe on its collision course with Earth – and this is just the tip of the transcendental iceberg! What follows is a mesmerising trail of ice of debris, a meandering voyage of blissful, lysergic krautrock ebbing and flowing on exquisitely crafted euphoric sequences. The calm before the almighty storm closing this masterpiece, the eruptive title track, strikes a balance in ways few albums can muster. Yuri Gagarin are masters of the craft, and now with the passing of Samsara Blues Experiment and Causa Sui (both with scintillating swansongs this year), are poised to ascend the throne!

19: Sound of Origin – The All-Seeing Eye (APF Records)

I will bite down ever harder, ripping off skin

An unrelenting groove machine, slugging it out cornered on all sides by multiple assailants, The All Seeing Eye never caves into submission. When most would raise the white flag, this juggernaut of a debut bides its time, perpetual strength simmering from the core, until the perfect opportunity comes to unleash a hell its foes could never dream. Foaming at the mouth with rage, Sound of Origin lash out in ‘Lockjaw’ and ‘Voices Left Behind’ with a ruthlessness reminding one of Alice in Chains at their heaviest, but their imdominable spirit erupts from their mortal vessels in the utterly pummeling ‘Dim Carcosa’, ‘Morning Bird’, and ‘Into the Vile’, offering up monolithic sledgehammer riffs alongside new vocalist Joel Bulsara’s otherworldly range, simultaneously igniting the soul and obliterating stone in one fell swoop. Fear not if you’ve crawled into a hole away from the fire, for the gargantuan ‘Stoned Messiah Blues’ will crumble anything left standing to dust. Destructive beyond recognition, this is one bluesy beast you will want on your side.

18: Sun of Grey – Outerworlds (Self-Released)

Turn on, tune in, and drop out becomes the nation’s creed

Rest assured when the endtymes arrive in the distant future, it will be the thundering dystopia of Outerworld being blasted down the fury roads, the soundtrack to the final war of men on a desolate planet hurtling toward oblivion. Six odes to the post-industrial wasteland, Sun of Grey cultivated a record ahead of their time; peering into times unseen through some murky concoction, they were not alone upon their return: an impending doom, a harrowing and contagious desolation seeped its way into the mix, cascading into the hypnotic dirges contained within and infecting the final product with a cacophonic dread. These bombastic, meaty tunes are beyond hazardous for your health, and no amount of antidote will bring you back from the visions transmitted among ‘Dark Souls’, ‘Outerworld’, and ‘Disease’. Once these airwaves nestle themselves in your brain, you too shall inflict sonic warfare on the streets, cranking the volume up to 11, and barrell towards the bleak emptiness to come. The future is now, and the future is fucking loud!

17: Cirith Ungol – Forever Black (Metal Blade Records)

Our blade will moan a fearful song, an endless dance of death

There is no mistaking the lyrics on ‘Legions Arise’: arising from decades of slumber – kept alive by a growing army loyal to the Moorcockian hymns of yore – Tim Baker howls the deafening call, giving praise to all who never gave up, and pledging the kings have returned, to lead you at last! Did years between ’92s Paradise Lost and their 2015 return to the stage quell the fire in their hearths? If you have caught them at their Frost and Fire appearances then you never needed convincing the answer is no. But on Forever Black the resounding battle cry spreads further than ever before, howling through the dungeons and rattling the chains of the past along the way, casting wave upon wave of denim-clad warriors unto the world with sword and shield in hand. Baker is still the supreme heavy metal vocalist, as proof on ‘The Fire Divine’, ‘Stormbringer’ and ‘Before Tomorrow’; with Greg Lindstrom, Jim Barraza, and Robert Garven reclaiming their thrones as kings of the dead (and Night Demon’s Jarvis Leatherby in tow) the reign of Cirith Ungol will the hearts of man once more!

16: The Brothers Keg – Folklore, Myths & Legends (APF Records)

Skeletal forms burn toxic green, vacant eyes lit with everlasting hellfire

Descending from upon their mountain keep vying to etch their mark in the blood of their naysayers, the shamanic yeti brotherhood of Keg beat their chests into the #16 spot not just for their archaic tribalism nor their incendiary sonic concoctions brewed from a recipe centuries old a la ‘Introducing the Brothers Keg’, ‘Moorsmen’, and ‘Brahman’. No, their power is much more than this: a mythology as rich and as captivating as theirs can only stem from the oral traditions of old, passed down through the generations gathered around campfires and mused upon with the finest of brews…or from the wildest imaginations. Either way, their gripping tales set our own imaginations ablaze and we cannot help but be drawn in like moths to flame. This can only be the beginning to a most bodacious adventure, and we are poised to the edge of our seats for what tales are still to be told. And let us not forget how monstrously heavy this record is!

15: Crippled Black Phoenix – Ellengæst (Season of Mist)

It’s okay to be afraid, time and time again we lose our way

There’s nothing like continually being kicked while you’re already down, and the latest Crippled Black Phoenix record does this for 55 consecutive minutes. With an phenomenal roster of guests filling in the void left by Daniel Anghede’s departure, Justin Greaves taps into a well of beauty and pain the only way he can: by bending the will of heaven and earth to his favour. On Ellengæst, all sensations and feelings are either stirred into a rousing euphoria, leading us into a false sense of security, like in the Belinda Kordic-led ‘Lost’ and ‘Everything I Say’, or they’re torn asunder, ripping wide open the already weeping wounds of a defeated soul; Kristian Espedal’s ‘In The Night’ is the prime example of this. But nothing musically in all of 2020 left us choking for air quite like ‘The Invisible Past’, a brooding 11-minutes of eloquent heartbreak, offset by Jonathan Hulten’s hauntingly beautiful voice, destroying the wreckage of your vessel beyond comprehension. Enter this candlelit belljar at your own peril.

14: Dark Forest – Oak, Ash & Thorn (Cruz del Sur Music)

The beating heart of Albion, revived

Arise from the seeds and saplings, O tales of yore! Hark your wisdom, hark your benevolence! It pays to heed the whispers from the forest, from a way of life long since buried among the rocks and roots. England is but a pantheon built upon the bones whose stories yearn to be told – and the legions of bands retelling our myths and legends are endless. Dark Forest return to revel in the glories of a past long forgotten but not just to pay homage: Oak, Ash & Thorn resurrects a love of home, for queen and country, beseiging a modern evil hellbent on twisting a national pride, and releasing it from its ugly grasp, doing so with a gleam in their eye. These rousing anthems are awash with vibrancy, gallopping on hefty hooves towards a monumental sunset, their rallying harmonies heard throughout their land. It’s one thing to captivate the listener but another thing to leave their hearts open wide and permanent grins across their faces – this, ladies and gentlemen, is the power revelling from this mighty slab o’wax!

13: Witchskull – A Driftwood Cross (Rise Above Records)

Your languid smile makes me nervous

Man do these riffs break bones! Chanelling the spirit of Iommi through his fingers whilst breathing from the lungs of the finest ’90s vocalists, Marcus De Pasquale is a storm in a teacup on the cusp of overflowing. What he and is brethren in Witchskull accomplish on A Driftwood Cross is fucking sublime: a timeless monument of stone, lumbering toward civilisation like some wicked colossus laying waste to everything in its path, powered by enough low-end to fracture the ground beneath its feet. Breaching the sound barrier with just a whisper, its full force explodes without a moments notice on the likes of ‘The Red Altar’, ‘Dresden’, and the obliviating ‘Nero Order’, reducing your fragile frame to dust where you stand. It is so damn easy to be caught off-guard here, losing yourself to the bludgeoning fury one moment and gone the next, you wouldn’t even notice until it was too late; clearly this is the the sonic equivalent of going “Super Seiyan”!

12: Forming the Void – Reverie (Ripple Music)

Dreaming wide awake, reflections in the flames

Observing Louisiana’s Forming the Void’s upward ascension has been, quite frankly, fucking awesome – and I don’t mean this as some superfluous exaggeration, I mean I have been left in awe since their self-released debut Skyward went heaven-bound a lifetime ago! Effortlessly moulding the fabric of the universe to accept their heavy-as-hell lysergic visions as truth, James Marhsall and his fellow wizards surpass even the reaches blessed by Mastodon’s Crack the Skye with this meteoric slab o’magnificence, glimpsing into the grand spectacle of the celestial divine and achieving metallic enlightenment. Mammoth-like riffs break through the cosmic ice the moment ‘Sage’ blows through the speakers until ‘The Ending Cometh’s’ closing doom-fuelled breaths, all the while astral incantations flood the airwaves a la ‘Trace The Omen’, ‘Electric Hive’, and the transcendental ritual that is ‘Manifest’. Life begins anew with every respin of this resplendent offering from the gods; that minds are consistently blown and reblown with every quest into the smoke is just an added bonus!

11: Ritual King – Ritual King (Ripple Music)

In this dissonant space time lays to waste

If for whatever reason Reverie did not sustain your vision quest needs then Ritual King’s enriching blend of desert-blues ought to be your gateway into the realm of the seers. An herbal brew as organic as the earth between your toes, Ritual King opens your mind to the world beyond your perception with raw, twisting grooves and sun-kissed licks cruising along the desert asphalt. Long, arid passages of intertwining psychedelia coalesce into one molten experience where time and space lose all meaning; an inescapable state of being in suspended animation finds you not staring into the mysteries of the night sky above you but becoming one with them. This overwhelming sensation of oneness flows throughout the record’s runtime, leaving you in this heightened experience where every motif glides through your physical vessel – and man do these fleeting moments feel like a blissful eternity! Why return to terra forma when you can drive down these astral highways forever?

10: IAH – III (Self-Released)

Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once – Susan Sontag

And now we plunge headfirst into this list’s Top Ten with 2020’s greatest gift: a surprise record from Argentina’s overlords of mind-bending music IAH, and what a treat their third outing is! Few manage to build such intricate worlds before obliterating them quite the same way as IAH achieve, an endeavour as delicate as it is cathartic, as if their music is in fact engineered by an extraterrestrial intelligence making sense of the human experience. The precise moment you find yourself bedazzled by the serene on III, drifting outwards into the vast unknown, is the exact time they catch you off-guard, entombing you in catastrophic walls of sound, such as those heard on ‘Uaset’, ‘Ennui’, and haunting closer ‘Una vez fue imaginario’, the impending doom of which is unavoidable. There is something unbelievably physical in these immaculate voyages, like towering buildings of reflective glass, of which the longer you look into it the further the real world fades into a long distant memory; there is solace within these walls, but there is a price…

9: Occult Hand Order – The Chained The Burned The Wounded (Smoking Witch Records)

The world is on fire so you better be running

Music birthed out of desolation, carved into hellish brimstone, and ejected deep within the labyrinths of France, Occult Hand Order pursue wickedness with an incendiary eye, thrusting the menace they discover unto the unsuspecting masses with sinister pleasure. By Lucifer’s beard does the rhythm section of Hugo Zepah and Tony Duvillard rattle to the core, heralding in the end of days with apoplectic thunder, bestowing unto the world a rupturing darkness. The Chained The Burned The Wounded reduces the playing field to ashes almost instantaneously as ‘Azazel’ unleashes its bombastic misanthropy, but the smouldering inferno following in its wake summons the angels from below to resurface; the likes of ‘What Comes After Us’ and ‘Edwin The Wise’ choke the life out of all the stragglers left behind with their bewildering psych-infused dirges. These are hymns to kill your gods to, to restore the planet to its primaeval state of chaos, and sound so fucking exhilarating in the process!

8: Lowrider – Refractions (Blues Funeral Recordings)

Give me something new, something that feels true

For years we had dreamt of this moment, the rebirth on the tip of everyone’s tongues, etched into the forefront of our collective consciousness. Teased throughout the 2010s with appearances across festivals throughout the European continent (all missed by this writer), the return of Sweden’s godfathers of the desert finally descended from upon high in February and holy hell does it not disappoint! Cruising down highways they paved some two decades ago, Lowrider find the stomp in their groove, flooring the gas pedal as they twist and turn through an unending arsenal of monstrously infectious riffs and passages of paradisiacal heaviness, with the 11-minute epic ‘Pipe Rider’ that statement’s epitome: swirling through the purring engine of a Dodge Challenger, its hypnotic riff stirs this monumental elation, the kind every breath at the peak of a trip brings, as it thunders onward through the haze. But with three other new trailblazers hurtling towards the planet each threatening a catastrophic impact, Refractions is more than some heroic comeback: it is an overwhelming triumph that sweeps you off your feet.

7: Solothus – Realm of Ash and Blood (20 Buck Spin)

A bliss of aeonic desolation

Staring into the irradiating darkness as the world around you burns, the only comfort you could hope for comes upon being swallowed by the crumbling earth. Thankfully, the devastating heaviness wrenching from the heart of Realm of Ash and Blood grants you your solace; its soul-crushing atmosphere ignites into a conflagratory ocean of despair, collapsing under its immense pressure as your lungs cease to function, your flesh set ablaze in the cacophonous billow. Solothus tap into their world-ending nightmare with a harrowing sorcery, a craft years spent honing, enrobed like shadows as the void ruptures from beneath their feet. A grim yet grandiose melancholia, unfathomable in its colossal depths, this realm demands your attention as ‘Father Of Sickness’, ‘The Gallow’s Promise’, and ‘Below Black Waters’ clutch at your feet and cast you down below. This bleak affair only ends after the cavernous death knell of ‘A Rain of Ash’ fades to morose nothingness, but by this point you have already succumb to the darkness. 2020 never got as musically bleak as this.

6: Wolftooth – Valhalla (Ripple Music)

In the palm of the wizard’s hand, steal the magic while you can

As if the majestic artwork alone weren’t enough to steal your attention then the sheer power of these ancient tales of atrocity sure as hell will! Shedding off their Sword-esque fur coats, Indiana’s Wolftooth make a pledge to the One-Eyed Father, donning his shield and cleave their way to the hall upon high. Sure the battle raged, but their deaths were fucking glorious: never stopping to shake in their boots as their swift licks and harmonies, drenched in the blood of the finest of ’80s metallic traditions, pierce the sky and accepted the fate bestowed upon them. The shimmering polish in their duelling attacks on the likes of ‘The Possession’, ‘Valhalla’, and ‘Juneau’ refracts the sun’s crisp energy to shatter the darkness into shards of glass while the anthemic ‘Firebreather’, ‘Fear For Eternity’, and ‘Schylla & Charybdis’ resound a battle cry long brewing in the shadows of a worldly evil, now unleashed for the whole world to hear and sing. Valhalla is as true a testament to the roaring supremacy of heavy metal, that miraculous force we give daily thanks. Now to simply hang my flag….

5: Sun Crow – Quest for Oblivion (Black Sun Crow Sky)

Man is at the end of the lie

Magmatic doom unlike anything you have heard before, Sun Crow chase the impossible with a molten edge as they crawl into the #5 spot, submerging every other goddamn entry with their mollases-filled ocean. You cannot run, and you sure as hell cannot hide, from the ensuing tide as this behemoth to end all behemoths rises from its subterranean lair – accept that you WILL be consumed by its ruthless surge to engross all in its path. The gargantuan grooves alone are powerful enough to fissure the ground, let alone the titanic earthpounding Keith Hastreiter lets loose with every passing second! Offset by the duality of Charles Wilson’s vocal chords, Quest For Oblivion‘s energy knows no earthly bounds, and submits to nothing, no-one, nowhere. When all that we know is dead and buried, steamrolled by ‘Black It Out’, ‘Fell Across The Sky’, and ‘Titan’, or reduced to nothingness by ‘Collapse’, ‘Fear’, and ‘Nothing Behind’, the heavy-hitting beast of tar will rule over all dominion. Eat your heart out ladies and gentlemen, it’s been nice knowin’ ya!

4: Psychlona – Venus Skytrip (Ripple Music / Cursed Tongue Records)

That little pill blew up my world

Psychlona spoilt us absolutely rotten when ‘Blast Off’ literally blasted its way out of the universe – that exhilarating motif, that breathtaking riff, that all-encompassing tone; Venus Skytrip‘s lead single is an unforgettably mind-melting voyage beyond the solar system the lads from Bradford fucking nail! So imagine the sheer delight when the record’s remaining 40+ minutes never comes down from this high, one that no amount of pills or blotters could possibly match. Brace yourselves for a lysergic shindig where tales of eight-foot-tall women, stardom, and wizards zip through the cosmos, where every exploding passage gleefully shreds our faces clean off, just like those mesmerising detonations in ‘Resin’, or the screeching wormhole-cruisin’ in ‘Tijuana’. Even when it isn’t breaking the speed barrier, where ‘Blow’ and ‘Edge Of The Universe’ send us into a headbanging frenzy, Psychlona’s sophomore slab o’wax continues to fumigate our brainwaves, splitting our subconscious minds wide open to melt with each other. This is heavy music at its finest, so do yourselves a favour: shove this in yer kebab and smoke it!

3: Slift – Ummon (Stolen Body Records)

We’ve been dreaming of space for so long

You ever wanted to know how Hawkwind would sound had they been birthed in the New Millenium? Look no further than France, arguably sci-fi’s fervant womb and also Slift’s home whilst earthbound. Strictly speaking there’s nothing tying this trio of cosmic minds to terra firma for they exist outside the realm of physics, each idea harnessing enough power to spawn galaxies with every supersonic acceleration. A formless vortex of expansive soundscapes driven by Canek Flores’ otherworldly fills and drills, gamma-bursting synths, and perhaps the heaviest cascading wavelengths this side of the Bootes Void, Ummon is godlike, a supermassive force as dense as a collapsing star, a mind-swelling voyage into the unknown reaches of a realm far beyond our imaginations. Giving fellow countrymen Mars Red Sky a run for their money, Slift have mined something so unbelievably stellar our celestial neighbourhood pales in comparison! From the inconceivable heaviness of ‘Ummon’ and ‘It’s Coming’ to the grandiose journies between ‘Altitude Lake’ and ‘Sonar’ and beyond, this is heavy psych at its most supreme, cresting and surpassing every concept which has come before it.

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/album=2261354180/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/tracklist=false/artwork=small/track=804019806/transparent=true/

2: Howling Giant / Sergeant Thunderhoof – Turned to Stone Chapter 2: Masamune & Muramasa (Ripple Music)

Join the spirit communion

When does a split release, especially one consisting of only two songs, become something bigger than just a shared release between two bands? When can it transcend all previous notions of collaboration, eclipsing even the most masterful longplayers that have come before it and since then? Perhaps it is when you have two of the scene’s most exciting collectives weave two monstrously sprawling tales committed to bewildering, elemental monuments of sound reaching heaven and beyond. Perhaps it is when Tennessee’s Howling Giant tap into an unseen presence – with one hand reaching into the vast expanses of the universe and the other deep into the planet’s core – offering all ears its sage wisdom upon powerful, blazing motifs. Perhaps it is when Somerset’s Sergeant Thunderhoof ground their zen into rising stone monoliths, into raging rivers, into unimaginable geomorphological process permanently shaping the planet’s surface, before one almighty slice of a sword carves through the very foundations. Whatever it is, the indominatable spirits of both bands, of ‘Masamune’ and ‘Muramasa’, blaze long into the night, their philosophies riding on solar winds, whispered into ears young and old, of people of all creeds and belief systems. This is the truth we all need to bask in.

1: Elephant Tree – Habits (Holy Roar Records)

Out past the dying light beyond a great sleep

For those of us who witnessed Elephant Tree open The Electric Ballroom on Desertfest 2019’s second full day, the overwhelming tidal wave of emotion that beseiged us as then new song ‘Bird’ unfurled before us still crests and plummets within our vessels each and every day. So naturally the bar was set high for the Londoner’s third record; let it be said then that Habits surpassed that bar by miles, irradiating beyond all expectations with every dreamlike and downtuned soundwave emitted from their skyscraping stacks. Over the years they have manipulated sound structures to pierce the soul with equal parts fleeting melancholia, stirring ecstasy, and limitless wonder, a process which has been honed here; executed with a harrowing love for the craft, everything here stops you dead in your tracks, hitting you with the propulsion of a water cannon out of nowhere. Like some grand unveiling these slow, eneveloping riffs emerge from the darkness and engulf all physical space, allowing for their electrifying harmonies to spark with incandescent hues – just hear the resplendent crawl of ‘Broken Nails’ second half or the ethereal dirges in ‘Exit the Soul’ for a taste of this. And then there’s ‘Sails’, the coalesence of their entire sound marching towards some great reckoning where the balance between light and dark strikes new ground, a hallmark within a hallmark, the rousing echo from within all of us materalised into one four-and-a-half-minute soaring spectacle. A quintessential record if ever there was one!

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